Follow along with the transcript below for episode: Celebrate the Season With Straight No Chaser
[0:00:04] PF: What’s up, everybody? This is Paula Felps, and you are listening to On a Positive Note. The holidays are here, which means we’ve been filling our ears with the sounds of the season. As we hit the final stretch, I’m talking with Jasper Smith of the popular acapella group, Straight No Chaser. Since being discovered on YouTube, this group has become an international sensation and has become part of a holiday tradition for many. In this episode, Jasper talks about the group’s incredible road to success and how delivering happiness at the holidays has made them synonymous with the season. Let’s have a listen.
[0:00:38] PF: Jasper, welcome to On a Positive Note. Thank you so much for joining me.
[0:00:42] JS: Hi, Paula. Yeah, thanks for having me. Happy to be here talking with you today.
[0:00:45] PF: Well, I love the story of Straight No Chaser. It is like a holiday Hallmark movie. It’s got that feel to it. Tell us about that. Talk about how the band first formed, and then how YouTube played Cupid and brought you all back together a little bit later in the story.
[0:01:04] JS: Yeah, it is one of those really, really crazy things. We compare it to winning the lottery. The group started back at Indiana University back in 1996 by some guys who were part of a then show choir called The Singing Hoosiers. The East Coast had this rich tradition of acapella and specifically, male acapella groups. There were a couple of guys that I knew that thought, “Man, we should do that here.”
There were 10 guys from The Singing Hoosiers that formed this group. Essentially, I think it was for singing in girls, you know what higher calling, or for food in girls, but they just started and kept going for three or four years and went to competitions and got some notoriety on the collegiate level. Ended up recording their senior farewell concert at IU, and then all went their separate ways for the next decade or so.
Then 2007, with the 10-year anniversary of the group, having come and gone, one of the guys uploaded just a random video from that farewell concert that they did. There was a group that still lived on that Indiana University, still lives on to this day. For that original group, just for nostalgia, one of the guys uploaded a video of them doing the 12 Days of Christmas. It was right at the advent of YouTube. It was one of those early videos that just went viral. I think it was one of the most watched videos of 2007. Lo and behold, one of the people who happens to see that video was Craig Kallman, the then president of Atlantic Records.
[0:02:32] PF: That’s not a bad audience to have.
[0:02:34] JS: Right, right. He said on the spot, he said, “I need to get in touch with these guys.” He reached out to the guy that uploaded the video and had the guys come sing for him in his office and signed them on the spot.
[0:02:47] PF: That is so amazing, because I live in Nashville. That is not how the music industry works. I mean, it’s really like, I was thinking about this last night as I was preparing and it’s like, everything about this story is the universe was saying this band needs to exist and needs to succeed. Because it just came together in such an incredible way. What were all of you doing at the time that Atlantic Records discovered you?
[0:03:13] JS: I mean, all the guys were doing a lot of different things. There were a couple of guys that were still involved in music. One of the guys was over in Asia, I think, with the touring production of Lion King. There were a couple of guys that had gone on to get their MBAs and working in finance, or working sales jobs. Just a couple of guys that had gone to Broadway after school, because they were musical theater majors. It was just everyone going their separate ways. Staying in touch, because they’re still friends and shared this experience, but not doing acapella by any means.
[0:03:45] PF: When this all started coming together, what was that like for everyone as a band? Because you’re being handed the dream on a platter and that had to be mind-blowing.
[0:03:57] JS: I came in a little bit after the initial signing. But in many conversations with the guys, I think it was this thing of a no-brainer, but the scariest no-brainer at the same time, right? Because all they had was this viral video and they were able to get signed and set up a tour and have some great opportunities. At the same time, there was still a touring business that needed to be built and needed to be made. I think, they did five or six touring shows the first year. It wasn’t necessarily something that was sustainable financially. At first, they just trusted the process and built it up from five to 10 shows touring the first year to, I think, we’re doing a 100 shows on the road this year.
[0:04:38] PF: It is every year. It just continues to grow in popularity. I think you probably now have multi-generational audiences, because it’s been around long enough that you’ve got people who are bringing kids to the shows. Now, those kids are old enough to be coming to the shows on their own and bringing dates, maybe their own kids soon.
[0:04:57] JS: We love our fan base. We call them chasers and really phenomenal to see that in the 15 years that the group’s been on the road. You’re exactly right, Paul. It’s people either bringing their now grown-up kids, or adults who are in their early mid to late 20s, being like, “I started coming to see you when I was eight-years-old, or seven-years-old.” Now, they’re adults with their own young families. It’s crazy to see, because it’s – a lot of the live shows have become just such a tradition for people in the markets that we come to every year that we see the same folks and are on a first name basis with a lot of fans and have dear, legitimate friendships.
[0:05:38] PF: That is the ultimate sign of success to me is to have these such enduring fans that you are a part of what they do every year. When it comes to holiday traditions, you are part of that. That’s an incredible, incredible thing to be able to say.
[0:05:52] JS: A real, real blessing. I was just talking to one of the guys about this the other day and it’s like, man, I’m not sure that any of us would have thought that we would have ended up singing acapella, but how blessed are we that we get to perform and we get to develop these relationships with people and hang out with guys who are, or have become our best friends. Yeah, just a dream scenario.
[0:06:11] PF: Yeah, absolutely. You chose to focus on holiday as your preferred genre. For so many artists, they’ll do a holiday album, and so, that they have something to sing during, I guess, November and December. You have built this career around this genre. What was the decision that went into doing that?
[0:06:29] JS: I think there’s a big difference in groups that developed themselves and then turned to Christmas. Straight No Chaser’s first hit was a Christmas song. While we do all other kinds of contemporary modern music, Christmas was where the group made its first foray into the larger zeitgeist, the larger entertainment scene. At this point, I think we’ve done five Christmas albums. Just because people come to shows, they want to see the 12 days of Christmas. We can only do that October to December. Naturally, it’s just developed into a largely Christmas show, or a group with the large Christmas association.
[0:07:09] PF: That makes sense. I wonder, because obviously, there’s a certain catalog of holiday music from which to draw. It seems like, okay, that might be limiting. I know you do some originals and I want to talk to you about that. For Straight No Chaser, that has not been limiting at all. Talk to me about what goes into transforming a traditional holiday song into a Straight No Chaser holiday song.
[0:07:36] JS: It’s really interesting. You know, at this point, we always think of any time we come out with a new Christmas album, my first thought is like, okay, what songs haven’t we done yet? How are there songs that we haven’t done at this point? There’s a few guys that are the main arrangers of the of the music in the group. I think each one of them have their own signature style.
There’s some really beautiful, cool, jazzy arrangements, the Tyler Trepp, one of the guys, I think, he’s known for. Really unique, fun, those kind of arrangements, say like, Christmas Can-Can, or Christmas time off of our new album. Those are very Walter Chase signature arrangements. Those guys have their hands all over and are attributed to a lot of the sound of Straight No Chaser, while other guys Mike Luginbill in the group, he’s primarily a songwriter. A lot of the original Christmas music that we do, a lot of that comes from his mind. It’s this nice synchronicity of all these individual guys putting their strengths together that have formed this sound over the years, right?
[0:08:43] PF: Is it something you do together, or is it more like The Eagles, where everyone does their own thing and then comes together and says, “Here’s what I got”?
[0:08:51] JS: It’s a cool combination of both. It is a really democratic process. There are guys that, to say one of these, I have one or two arrangements that I’ve done over the years for the group. For the most part, guys will say, with technology being what it is now and the pandemic forcing us to learn how to record and work some technology from home. A lot of the guys now can have an idea for an arrangement, completely build it out from home on their computer, recording it all nine to 12 parts, or whatever it is and send a demo that’s going to be pretty close to what they want the finished product to sound like.
What that guy will do is he’ll create that demo track and send it out to the guys. As long as we have what I call a super majority, like seven of the nine guys approve it, that gets approved, either go on an album, or go into the live show. Then at the end of the day, the ultimate deciding body is the audience. We could love a song and get it all the way to a crowd. If they don’t love it, then it’s like, “Oh, okay. Well, that one –”
[0:09:56] PF: We’ll take that out of the rotation.
[0:09:57] JS: They’ve spoken. Yeah, yeah. It’s, to your point, a combination of both. Really individualized, but also, very collaborative.
[0:10:07] PF: That’s an awesome process. It sounds like, everybody then really gets along, because we know that’s not always the case. You’ve got a very large ensemble. For everybody to be able to gel personality and musicality-wise, that’s really a huge testament to the group as well.
[0:10:23] JS: Sure. To be honest, it’s not always the case. A lot of these guys have known each other for 25 years, pushing 30 years at this point. I would say, it’s a lot like a business partnership, but it’s also a lot just like a brotherhood. We love each other like brothers. We fight like brothers. At the end of the day, we all have the same goals. We get over it and all start eventually pull in the same direction, because we know that’s what we need to do.
[0:10:49] PF: That’s fantastic. Now, you mentioned the pandemic and I can’t let that go without talking about your version of A Long December.
[0:10:59] JS: Oh, yeah.
[0:11:00] PF: Oh, my God. That still to this day gives me chills. I watched it again just yesterday, because that was so perfect. Obviously, Long December isn’t a holiday song. Man, that just embraced the whole mood of 2020. Tell me how that came about. We’re going to drop a link to that video in the notes, because if people need to watch that, if they haven’t already.
[0:11:23] JS: Oh, great. Yeah. First of all, thank you. That’s really kind of you. That was an idea that Mike Luginbill came to us with one of the members of the group. I think it was in talking to our manager and a couple other people. We were trying to think of it. It was that same process of like, okay, what Christmas songs haven’t we done yet? Mike came back and said, “This isn’t really a Christmas song, but we can – it talks about December and we can spin it.” Then in having that conversation, it was probably April or May of 2020, when everyone was in the thick of that stuck at home.
That conversation spun into, man, what a great opportunity to encapsulate that moment. Mike was the main one with the idea and we had – it was really interesting. I think by July or August, things hadn’t necessarily started opening up yet. If you noticed the video, I think it’s either just Mike in the video, or maybe just shots of us individually, because we had one camera guy go to Mike’s house, they stayed six feet apart and masked when not shooting the entire time. It was a really a delicate process, but a message that we thought was important to share.
[0:12:36] PF: Yeah, it was beautifully done. Again, it’s just a –
[0:12:38] JS: Thank you.
[0:12:39] PF: – great way to capture that dreadful moment in history, that you turned into a very tender, uniting situation with music. I just absolutely loved it.
[0:12:50] JS: Thank you. Yeah. That’s a moment that I’m really proud of for the group as well.
[0:12:53] PF: Let’s talk about your new album, which is Stocking Stuffer. It’s got so much to enjoy with it. Happiest Christmas Tree. Oh, come on. You guys really killed it with Christmas Like. That is so fun. First of all, tell the audience what that is. Then, how did that come about? Because I’m like, someone was having a very good time when they were writing this parody.
[0:13:16] JS: It was 2021, I think. The song is Walker Hayes, there’s some fancy like, who now side note, has come out with his own, I think, Christmas version of that song.
[0:13:26] PF: Did he steal the lyrics?
[0:13:29] JS: No. Particularly really different. I think we reached out to him and we never heard anything. Then he came out with the Christmas version, so we’re a little suspect.
[0:13:36] PF: We’ll have our attorneys look into that.
[0:13:38] JS: Sure, sure. Yeah, it was the first time we were back out on the road. It was fall of 2021. Walter Chase, who I was saying is responsible for a lot of those fun, unique arrangements, like Christmas Time and Christmas Can-Can. He came into rehearsals and he’s like, “I don’t like country music, but I am obsessed with this song.” Just kept singing it and playing it over and over again. He came back to us and thought, “Man, what if we did a Christmas Time version of this?” One of the other guys, Seggie Isho, in the group is our go-to comedy writer when it comes to writing parody lyrics and fun things like that. He and Walt both went in, rewrote the lyrics to this Walker Hayes song.
They came to me. I’m from Southern Indiana. I grew up farming and listening to country music. They were like, “Well, we want you to sing at least part of the stuff.” I was like, I can twang a little bit.
[0:14:33] PF: Put the boots on and go.
[0:14:34] JS: Yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah. We recorded that, a dressing room in Sarasota, Florida in November of 2021 and had it released out as a single a couple weeks later. We thought it was just – we needed it to be timely, because I think, fancy was still just crushing on the charts. We thought, what better time to just get this done and get it out and get it to people?
[0:14:57] PF: How have people received it? Because I mean, that song is such an earworm. You just cannot, even if you don’t like the song, it’s like, it help. But you’re like, fancy like Applebee’s.
[0:15:07] JS: Yeah. Yeah. Exactly. It was received really, really, really well. I mean, even now two years later, I can’t remember, I don’t think we did it last year on the road. But two years later, I still have people coming through every night in the signing line that we do and say, “Man, I wish you would have done Christmas Like. Where’s that Walker Hayes song, or whatever?” I mean, people are still talking about it and asking for it.
[0:15:32] PF: That’s terrific. The one thing that I see about your music is like, you are all about delivering joy through your music. I mean, none of the songs that you play are going to make somebody just sit down and go like, “Oh, God. I feel depressed now.” It is all about buoyancy and joy and people feel good when they are finished listening to you. What is the hope and intention with the music that you create?
[0:15:56] JS: It’s really interesting. There’s a lot of other acapella groups out there that really, really focus on the music and the musicians, say like, The Blenders, or a Take 6, or Real Group, or things like that, other vocal groups out there. We always like to say, we take the music seriously, we don’t take ourselves seriously. A lot of our intention is just to portray what we really are, is just a bunch of guys enjoying singing and enjoying being on stage and making music and just having fun.
If there’s a guy that will club lines on stage, we’ll call him out. If there’s people that are coming in late to the show, we’ll poke some fun. Well, it’s not a set show. It’s all about – the thing I love about Straight No Chaser is that it’s not a presentation. It’s a conversation with the audience. With all these, I’ve talked about how much we appreciate our fans. It really is just, we want them to have as much fun as we’re having on stage, and we can’t do that without bringing them into the process. I think, a lot of our happiness, yes, we take the music really seriously, but we don’t take ourselves seriously in that. We just want to have all the fun that we can. We know that if we’re having fun and bring the audience to it, that they’re going to have fun with it as well.
[0:17:14] PF: That’s terrific. Your shows, your music are a whole lot of fun. Jasper, thank you for sitting down and talking with me today. You do so much to bring joy to so many people. I’m excited to share this with our listeners and to share some of the new music you’re doing. We’re going to drop some links in there for you.
[0:17:30] JS: Oh, great. Yeah. Thank you so much for having me, Paula. This was such a nice conversation. I appreciate that.
[0:17:36] PF: You have a wonderful rest of the holiday season.
[0:17:38] JS: Yeah, thank you. You, too. Happy holiday.
[END OF INTERVIEW]
[0:17:44] PF: That was Jasper Smith of Straight No Chaser, talking about how they deliver joy through music during the holiday season. If you’d like to learn more about Straight No Chaser, listen to their music, or check out some of their videos, just visit us at livehappy.com and click on the podcast tab.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this episode of On a Positive Note and look forward to joining you again next time. Until then, this is Paula Felps, reminding you to make every day a happy one.